Before Syria’s civil war, Al Houleh was a small, quiet farming region to the north of Homs. But a massacre last year, blamed on government loyalists, left several dozen villagers dead.
Since then, the Al Houleh region has become rebel-held territory, and government troops are choking it. Trapped in the siege are several hundred civilians, all of them related to the rebels.
As I spoke inside a home with some women and children from the village of Taldo, a fighter jet pierced the sky. The reaction was a contrast to what you’d see in Damascus where hardly anyone looks up when they hear a sonic boom.
But in Taldo, within an instant everyone went from gregarious to panic-stricken. I was no exception.
“Sshhh,” said Um Ahmad when I asked if we should perhaps move to the basement for shelter.
“We have to listen closely,” she said. “If the plane starts to get louder like it’s descending, then it means he’s about to bomb us.”
Frequent Air Strikes
The bombs can fall anywhere at anytime, and kill anyone. And they do.
In the past couple of weeks, there was the 18-year-old who was washing up at home as he planned to head over to the mosque for Friday prayer. A shell fell on his home and killed him instantly.
There was the middle-aged father of six who was smuggling bags of wheat flour across the Houleh Lake.
“He’s still in the lake,” Um Ahmad said. His body has not yet been found.
There was the family who was spared death when a shell fell on their vegetable garden, just in front of their home.
“They came out and found all their cows in pieces,” she recalled. “And they had to clean it all up bit by bit.”
Life is difficult in these besieged villages even when the bombs aren’t falling. Food is scarce.
Al Houleh used to provide a major portion of Syria’s wheat, with enough left over to export. But Syria now imports wheat.
Acres of farmland sit unattended because owners have fled, mostly to refugee camps in Turkey. Acres have been burned. Locals blame government troops for deliberately setting fire to crops, and for shooting at farmers who venture near them.
The villagers tend to personal vegetable plots, but everything else must be smuggled in. Basics like cooking gas and heating oil sell for exorbitant prices, so people go without it. Toothpaste and shampoo have become luxuries.
In Damascus, pro-government graffiti makes promises. “Assad or no one!” one ubiquitous slogan goes. “Assad or we burn the land,” reads another.
But in Taldo, a different narrative unfolds.
You can see it in the once-main road that goes through the village. You can feel it in the school that sits in ruins, overlooking the road. The building is now silent — except for the writing on the wall: “Death and not Assad.”